Al Qaeda looms as "a major and increasing threat to Iraq's stability" and to the United States, a senior State Department official told reporters Wednesday.

"So that leads really to the final point, which is countering the reemergence of al Qaeda and the reemergence of the Islamic State of Iraq in the Levant," the unnamed official told reporters during a background briefing for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's visit to the United States this week.

"This is really a major and increasing threat to Iraq’s stability, its an increasing threat to our regional partners, and it’s an increasing threat to us," the official said. The official's comments were circulated to non-attending media by the State Department.

The latest assessment of growing al Qaeda strength contrasts sharply with President Obama's statement when American soldiers were withdrawn from Iraq.

Obama said then that disentanglement from the country had allowed U.S. to target al Qaeda more effectively.

"The tide of war is receding," Obama said in October 2011. "The drawdown in Iraq allowed us to refocus our fight against al Qaeda and achieve major victories against its leadership -- including Osama bin Laden.

"Now, even as we remove our last troops from Iraq, we’re beginning to bring our troops home from Afghanistan, where we’ve begun a transition to Afghan security and leadership.

"When I took office, roughly 180,000 troops were deployed in both these wars. And by the end of this year that number will be cut in half, and make no mistake: It will continue to go down."

The State Department official in today's background briefing said an al Qaeda group, based in Syria, poses a "transnational threat" to the region.

"Some of these al Qaeda networks that are coming in from Syria and that are based in Iraq now really have heavy weapons," the official said.

The terrorists are targeting Shiite civilian areas, according to the official.

Six senators wrote Obama earlier this week to blame Maliki for the escalating violence, arguing that the Iraqi government's "mistreatment of the Sunnis is pushing that minority group toward extremism," as the Washington Post summarized.

“These were the same conditions that drove Iraq toward civil war during the last decade and we fear that fate could befall Iraq once again,” Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich.; Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.; Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn.; Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J.; Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla.; and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., wrote in the letter.